Story written by Sophie Hashem Lee
I hated the first year of motherhood.
There, I said it.
I would be flat out lying if I said my first year as a new mom was filled with rainbows, roses and peaceful walks in the park. It did not feel like motherhood was a gift. In fact, it felt very far from a happy place. Were there pleasant moments? Sure. Do I love my child? More than anything in the world. But for the most part, my early days as a new mom were overshadowed by feelings of regret and resentment.
Of course, every mother has different experiences. Some are ready to embrace the changes that await them when becoming a mom. Others have a harder time with that transition. But the reality is that the first year as a new mom can be exceptionally grueling, and it’s simply not talked about enough. From feeding and sleep deprivation, to hormone imbalances and identity shifts – it can all be so overwhelming.
Those challenges often prompt an abundance of toxic positivity from a new mother’s support network. Countless times through my first year I heard things like, “it’s totally worth it” and “don’t worry, it gets better”. These words of encouragement completely undermine and minimize the steep learning curve every new mom faces. As women, we often sugarcoat the things that feel hard because we don’t want the world to see our struggle. Being raw should be the standard – even if that means being vulnerable.
Professional to Professional Diaper Changer
Before having a baby, I lived and breathed my career working as a public servant for the Federal Government of Canada. My career became a major part of my identity. I took pride in my work and had no issue with choosing my job over social and familial obligations. My career was deeply fulfilling, and I was comfortable delaying the prospect of children to meet the career goals that I had set for myself.
Early in my career, I had a preconceived notion that it would be harder to “make it” in the work world as a woman if I became a mother. Even though I had seen women climb through the government ranks for years while raising children, I still found it difficult to imagine balancing it all. But as time went on, my biological clock ticked louder and louder. I had to make a decision that would impact my life forever.
At the ripe age of 35, I faced the fact that if I were to have a child, I’d better start trying. To my surprise, it did not take very long. Soon, I was growing a child. And just as soon, I was feeling like I had to work even harder to compensate for the time I would soon be taking off to raise her. Then my child arrived. My career was instantly put on hold. And I wanted my old life back.
The transition from the professional world to motherhood was a shock and far from seamless. I was underprepared for the mixed bag of emotions that immediately followed giving birth. Type A personalities and organizational freaks such as myself try to imagine and anticipate every scenario. Having had endless conversations with loved ones, friends, colleagues on how to handle motherhood, I expected to be ready for what lay ahead. But I wasn’t.
I know they say you will never be ready for parenthood, but I truly felt so ill-equipped to handle the day-to-day emotions, pressures and, most of all, the monotony. Feed, sleep, entertain, diaper change, clean, repeat; feed, sleep, entertain, diaper change, clean, repeat. There was no room for anything else. Through it all, I kept thinking: “This must be some sort of sick joke? Where the heck is the excitement? The adrenaline rush? The reward?!” And I keep feeling like I was no longer contributing to anything meaningful. Yet, I continued hoping to receive a nod of approval that I never seemed to receive.
Postpartum Depression and Breastfeeding
In my area of work, deadlines are everything and every problem has a solution. So, you can imagine my disappointment when I couldn’t successfully breastfeed as a first-time mom. It was an important part of what I thought my contribution was to growing this child early on and the fact that I couldn’t do it in the way I wanted, or the way society told me was acceptable, was absolutely devastating. I felt guilty and inadequate (I obviously know better now, but hormones will make you crazy!). I treated increasing my milk supply day after day like it was an assignment or special project, over-analyzing where I went wrong, how I could improve, constantly measuring my progress. All to provide my child with what I thought (or was conditioned to believe) was the best option. I eventually resigned to formula.
Feelings of regret (and boredom), compounded by failed attempts at breastfeeding, left me feeling broken. I wanted to hold onto who I once was pre-child. A career person, a person who had more control, a person who people relied on to “make sh*t happen”. But I couldn’t, and it was in this moment of realization that the depression and anxiety kicked into high gear.
Soon, I became obsessed with ensuring my child got all the best food and nutrients while also optimizing routines and sleep conditions. It felt like a full-time job again! I effectively turned my child’s growth into my pet project to help me get through some of the deepest and darkest parts of the first-year experience. I still can’t tell whether it was a coping mechanism or made the anxiety worse because of the undue pressure. But I did what I did.
It wasn’t until about month 4 or 5 into being a mom that the initial dust settled and it all really hit me: This was my new life. This child isn’t going anywhere, and the responsibilities associated with this new role will never fade.
On many days, I envied my husband. I would watch him get ready in the morning, having his coffee, making his lunch and out the door he went to work with a sense of purpose. I would look down at myself in my scrubby clothing, hair tied up in a messy bun with spit-up all over, having to warm up my coffee 10 times. I felt unrecognizable and invisible.
This was compounded by the fact that I found it exceptionally difficult to hunker down and focus on one task at a time (now we feed, now we sleep). To motivate myself, I would often times tell myself that in my previous life I used to be this high functioning, multi-tasking jack of all trades in the world of public policy/administration. But it didn’t work. Shifting gears was now difficult. As was measuring my success.
Because, unlike the professional world, in motherhood there are no performance indicators or performance reviews that help us to measure our success as we raise these children – especially in the first year. Other than the number of times your child poops, eats, sleeps, and the number of smiles you get in a day, you don’t really get much out of them. But because I was programmed this way for so long, for the first nine months of motherhood I genuinely never knew whether I was doing a “decent job”. It wasn’t until my baby began to walk and become more engaging, that I finally started to accept that I was the best mom for my child and that I was and still am doing a “good job.”
365 days later
A year later, my perspectives remain. Year 1 was simply not my best and I carry no shame in admitting that. As I reflect, I am grateful that I was able to spend time shaping the life of another beautiful human (as hard as it was). But at the end of it all, I simply do not view my child or role as a mother as something to I want to consistently boast about. I am in no way any less of a mother because of this nor am I less invested in creating an environment where my child may thrive. Rather, it’s an acknowledgment that this experience is not my life’s fulfillment. Certainly, it is a part of me now (whether I like it or not), but it is not ALL of who I am or want to be.
I’ve heard many career women express that they became better mothers when they returned to work. I’ve often wondered whether it is the sense of purpose work gives us that allows us to re-identify with who we once were pre-children. Or perhaps it’s the ability to step away from our children that allows us to be more present when we are afforded time with them. Regardless of “what makes a mom”, the reality is that all of it is hard. Yet a stigma remains around admitting this and, thus women don’t feel comfortable in saying motherhood is just plain hard. Which I totally get it. Admitting that one is struggling can make a new mom feel like she has failed (though nothing could be further from the truth). But, the truth is, the shift from a savage professional to a primary caregiver can be excruciating.
As career women, we have this super hero complex. We are conditioned to think we have to seamlessly juggle all the balls in the air (or at least pretend that we are effortlessly managing it all). But the pressure we put on ourselves as women in the workplace is a trait that could be seeping into motherhood and can become quite toxic and damaging. So, while I fully accept that Year 1 of mom-hood was not for me, I implore new mothers to be comfortable in expressing themselves without fear of being judged or shamed. It’s time to smash the mold of traditional motherhood. Let’s forget about portraying an image of strength and, instead, feel empowered by being honest. It is okay to feel defeated and want to run for the hills. We are not any less capable. Simply because motherhood can be challenging, it does not diminish all the progress we have made as women. And it most certainly does not need to dramatically change the people we are when we return to our careers.